Thursday, September 08, 2005

Candidates Look for Way to Move Voters in Va., N.J. Gov. Races

By Stuart Rothenberg

If you don’t live in Virginia or New Jersey, chances are you don’t know that those two states have gubernatorial elections coming up in just two months.

Come to think of it, even if you do live in those states, you might not be paying particularly close attention to the races. Voters in both states so far have seemed more concerned with the humidity and rising gas prices than with the candidates. But that could change after Labor Day, when campaigns will begin their final pushes to November and will launch major TV advertising campaigns.

Neutral observers of the New Jersey gubernatorial contest doubt that a flurry of unflattering summer news stories about the nominees, Sen. Jon Corzine (D) and Republican Doug Forrester, has changed the likely outcome of the election.

Corzine’s "reform" reputation took an embarrassing hit in the Garden State over the summer as reports surfaced that the now-divorced Senator had a romantic relationship with the president of the Communications Workers of America Local 1034 and that a company Corzine owns loaned her $470,000 to help her buy her home from her ex-husband.

Carla Katz’s union includes approximately 9,000 state employees, and the CWA’s current contract expires in less than two years.

That controversy, along with reports of other eyebrow-raising Corzine loans and contributions, did give New Jersey Republicans an opening at a time when the state’s Democrats have had far more than their fair share of ethics issues (including the resignation of then-Gov. Jim McGreevey).

But Republican gubernatorial nominee Forrester has been unable to take advantage of the opening, in part because Democrats immediately counterattacked him and charged that he violated a state law that prohibits owners of insurance companies in the state from making political contributions.

The state’s Department of Banking and Insurance recently issued a less-than-clear ruling about Forrester’s business dealings in the state, and while both parties claimed victory, the issue isn’t likely to disappear entirely. That’s a problem for Forrester, who can’t afford to spend any time defending his own ethics.

Republicans have two big problems in the race. First, since New Jersey is now a "blue" state, any statewide GOP candidate begins with a partisan hurdle to overcome. And second, Forrester, who seemed poised to upset then-Sen. Robert Torricelli (D) in the 2002 Senate race before Torricelli withdrew and his replacement, Frank Lautenberg, won by 10 points, simply hasn’t connected with state voters.

Polling conducted during the summer showed Forrester trailing Corzine by 10 points.

Another Republican, such as U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie, might have been able to take advantage of Corzine’s new ethics vulnerability by running a reform-oriented campaign pledging to "clean up" the state. But Forrester probably has had enough of his own problems to make running on such a platform very difficult, if not impossible.

If the New Jersey race has shown few signs of evolving, Virginia’s gubernatorial contest has shown even less.

Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine (D) and former state Attorney General Jerry Kilgore (R) have been locked in a tight race in the Old Dominion for many months, and there are no signs that is about to change.

A late-July Mason-Dixon survey for the Richmond Times-Dispatch showed Kaine leading Kilgore 38 percent to 37 percent, with Independent Russ Potts, a GOP state legislator from the socially moderate wing of his party, at 9 percent.

Kaine has better candidate skills, but Kilgore has the Republican label, which gives him a considerable advantage in the race.

Kaine continues to run as the heir to the legacy of outgoing Gov. Mark Warner (D), who remains popular in the state as he is about to leave office. The lieutenant governor portrays himself as a business-friendly, socially moderate Democrat who earned a reputation for effectiveness as mayor of Richmond.

Predictably, Kilgore portrays Kaine as a liberal masquerading as a moderate, both on social issues (including the death penalty) and on economic issues. Democrats counter by painting Kilgore as a lightweight.

While the candidates have argued over taxes, debates - Kilgore won’t appear with Independent Potts unless he draws 15 percent of the vote in two public polls - and social issues, most Virginians seem uninterested.

The Kaine campaign sent out a silly polling memo in June asserting that Kaine had made "steady progress" between November of last year and June. But the memo documented change that was so statistically insignificant that it was laughable.

It showed Kaine increasing his percentage of the vote among independents from 23 percent to 25 percent, while Kilgore’s support among the same voters fell from 27 percent to 26 percent. Statistically, that’s no movement at all.

Virginia remains a tossup, with the outcome turning on whether the election is a referendum on Mark Warner or a choice between a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat. Kilgore’s GOP label could be the difference.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 6, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.